Conlon Nancarrow is a covert hero of mine. “Covert” because I’m not sure I actually like his music. He’s a hero because he went off and did what he did. The fact that nobody was paying any attention didn’t stop him.
Or maybe I’m overstating the case. The biographical sketches I’ve read say little or nothing about the correspondence Nancarrow may have had with other composers during the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s. He was physically isolated, but I don’t know how isolated he may have been psychologically and culturally. One bio says Elliott Carter was a lifelong friend; that would count for something.
The story, in brief: When Nancarrow returned from Spain in 1939, after fighting Franco with a bunch of other American volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, his Communist views were so unpopular that he was denied a U.S. passport. So he pulled up stakes, moved to Mexico City, and became a Mexican citizen.
He had studied composition with Walter Piston and Roger Sessions in the ’30s, and he became fascinated by complex metric schemes — rhythms that no musician could ever play. So he acquired a pair of player pianos and a piano-roll punching machine. That was his orchestra. (One bio credits him with saying, “As long as I’ve been writing music I’ve been dreaming of getting rid of the performers.” I can relate.)
Were he alive today, Nancarrow could write far more complex and varied music on a laptop, with Csound. The player piano part of the story is very sad. (He could never quite get the two pianos’ mechanisms to synchronize with one another, for one thing. They always drifted apart.)
What interests me, though, isn’t the primitive technology. It’s the question of how he managed to persevere for 40 years, creating esoteric music in almost complete obscurity.
He was married three times, and his father had been the mayor of Texarkana; both of these facts would suggest that he may have had a healthy self-regard. His second wife was part of the circle of Mexican painter Diego Rivera, so he probably wasn’t isolated from other artists in Mexico, even if the Mexican classical musicians were (understandably) unable to cope with his ideas.
So maybe I’m making too much of the fact that he left the country and spent 40 years writing music that nobody was listening to. Maybe people were dropping by the house every week to say, “Way to go, Conlon! You rock, dawg!”
I sure wish somebody would drop by my house every week to tell me I rock, dawg. It’s real hard to keep the player piano cranking along when nobody ever says that.